AS a MIG-21 fighter takes off against the backdrop of the distant tan-gray mountains, almost a dozen more aircraft sit ready behind low mud walls at Mazar-i-Sharif. This northern Afghan city is a stronghold for the government of President Najibullah and its airport is the training ground for the Afghan Air Force which is crucial to the regime's defenses against the mujahideen (Afghan guerrillas.)
Showing a prowess that has surprised many Western analysts, these Soviet-trained pilots flying fighters and helicopters have enabled the government to hold the key cities of Jalalabad and Khost and deter a long-expected guerrilla offensive against the capital, Kabul.
Rebel commanders in Pakistan admit they have little answer to the maneuvers of the Afghan Air Force. Combined high-level bombing and sweeping low attacks have rendered ineffective the US-supplied Stinger missiles which the guerrillas used with deadly precision against Soviet forces. The aircraft also have stymied mass attacks by the mujahideen across open ground.
``The surprise has been the Afghan Air Force,'' says a Western diplomat in Pakistan. ``They have neutralized the Stingers.''
The Air Force's effectiveness also has raised the specter that the civil war could widen into a regional conflict. Hundreds of Soviet and Pakistani advisers are reportedly helping each side. And mujahideen leaders, frustrated by their inability to counter the air attacks, have charged that pilots from India, an ally of Moscow and Kabul, are flying for the Kabul government. New Delhi has denied the charges.
Both Afghan and Western officials predict intense fighting during the summer, the only time when much of the mountainous country is open. After failing to take Jalalabad, the mujahideen will be trying to regain momentum as Pakistan and other supporters have taken tentative steps to reopen talks on a political settlement.
By the fall, officials close to Najibullah predict that guerrilla commanders could respond to government overtures to end fighting in in exchange for autonomy in their own regions.